Gabrielle graduated with an MSc in Information Management and Preservation from the University of Glasgow in 2018, she currently works as a Senior Officer for Vital Records in London 📚 | Twitter: @GabrielleBex
Last week, after three amazing years, I finally graduated from the University of Winchester with a 2:1 in English Literature and History. Graduation was an unforgettable experience, spent catching up with friends, trying not to trip, and posing for about a thousand awkward photographs that will, presumably, stare down at me from my grandfather’s display cabinet until the end of time.
[PHOTOS of me graduating]
It was also, as I’m sure every Winchester grad can confirm, spent looking around in absolute awe at the beautiful cathedral we’re so lucky to graduate in. What a building! And what a history! As I stood nervously, waiting for my name to be called and wobbling in my heels (in hindsight, a poor choice on the uneven stone floor), I couldn’t help but think of all the sights the cathedral must have seen over the years and of all the other people to have passed through those impressive wooden doors.
I knew various tidbits about the cathedral’s history- such as the gloriously higgledy-piggledy stained glass in the West Window, which had been swept up and restored by the people of Winchester after Cromwell’s men destroyed it during the Civil War- but I suddenly felt inspired to learn more. More than that though, I wanted to jot down some highlights here, hopefully to inspire others to visit (and to fall in love with) Winchester Cathedral.
(Because what post about Winchester Cathedral would be complete without this gem from the ‘60s?)
Anglo Saxon Origins
Now, Winchester Cathedral has its roots in the seventh century, when the pagan monarchs of England first converted to Christianity. In 635, Cynegils, king of the West Saxons, was baptised and, just over a decade later, his son Cenwalh built the first Christian church in Winchester, which was by then the heart of Anglo Saxon Wessex.
This was a small, cross-shaped church which became known as Old Minster. In these blurry photos I took back in 2014 on my freshers’ tour of the cathedral, you can just about make out where it stood, slightly to the north of the present building and outlined in red brick.
[PHOTOS of Old Minster outlines]
Soon, Old Minster became a cathedral, housing the cathedra of a bishop responsible for a huge diocese that stretched all the way from the English Channel right up to the River Thames. In turn, it became the most important church in Anglo Saxon England, and was the burial place for many of the earliest kings of Wessex, including King Alfred the Great. The legendary King Cnut is also buried at Winchester, alongside his wife Queen Emma.
A Place of Pilgrimage
By the tenth century, Old Minster had become the priory church of a community of monks, living under the care of St Benedict. The church was made even bigger and grander by Bishop Aethelwold, who had the bones of St Swithun moved from their burial place in the forecourt, and housed in a new shrine inside. The fame of St Swithun and his miracles spread far and wide and all around his tomb, the walls were hung with the crutches of people he was said to have healed.
By the year 1000, Old Minster was a multipurpose building- having become a mighty cathedral in its own right, a thriving priory church, and a renowned place of pilgrimage.
Significant changes were to lie ahead for Winchester however, as England’s Saxon leaders were abruptly toppled following the events of 1066 and the invasion of William the Conqueror. He was anointed king on Christmas Day at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and quickly moved to take control of the Church.
Winchester’s last Saxon bishop was replaced with his own royal chaplain, Walkelin, and the French bishop soon set about building a huge new church in the Norman Romanesque style. After 450 years, Old Minster was demolished. Its stones were used for the new cathedral, consecrated in 1093 with a grand ceremony attended by almost all of England’s bishops and abbots.
The Norman cathedral soon flourished. In 1100, William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus (the Red), was buried here following his suspicious death whilst out hunting in the New Forest. He was buried under the tower of his father’s great cathedral, which collapsed seven years later- according to local folklore, as a result of his wickedness.
Around this time, sumptuous works of art were being commissioned. A glorious new font was installed, celebrating the life of St Nicholas and later, in the twelfth century, a magnificent illuminated Bible was made for the monks to use in their daily worship. The Winchester Bible can still, to this day, be seen in the Cathedral Library.
[PHOTOS of the Winchester Bible]
In the centuries that followed, wealth and powerful bishops would put their stamp on the Norman cathedral. It was re-modelled again and again, with soaring gothic arches added in the fourteenth century and made more ornate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They also commissioned their own chantry chapels, where priests would say daily masses over their tombs to speed their souls into Heaven.
The dissolution of the monasteries, following the Act of Supremacy and Break with Rome in 1534, lead to many changes and upheavals for the cathedral. After nearly 600 years, Winchester’s great Benedictine monastery, St Swithun’s Priory, had come to an end. The shrine of its patron saint was ransacked under the cover over darkness and its cloister demolished.
Catholicism was briefly revived in the 1550s by Mary Tudor, who married King Philip II of Spain at a ceremony held in the cathedral, but it was not to last long. Since the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the cathedral has been Church of England.
From Pride and Prejudice to the Present Day
By the early sixteenth century, much of the Cathedral as it appears today was complete. New secular names became forever linked to it, in addition to those of many kings and bishops. In the seventeenth century, the angler Izaak Walton was buried in Winchester Cathedral, as was the great novelist Jane Austen, back in 1817.
All was nearly lost in the early 1900s however, as concerns began to grow that the east end of the building would collapse following centuries of subsidence. Miraculously though, the deep-sea diver turned hero, William Walker, worked for six solid years (in terrible conditions, underwater and in complete darkness) and was able to stabilise and, ultimately, save the cathedral!
[PHOTOS of William Walker and the cathedral with scaffolding]
In 2017, after twelve centuries, the beautiful cathedral remains the seat of the Bishop of Winchester and centre of the Diocese of Winchester. It continues to echo with the sounds of sacred music, daily prayer and, on occasion, the voice of Alan Titchmarsh (Chancellor for the University of Winchester) congratulating graduates.
[PHOTO of Alan Titchmarsh]
It truly is an incredible place to visit, and I would fully encourage everyone to do so.
‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’ –
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet.
On this day, exactly one hundred years ago, the Battle of Passchendaele began. Today, the conflict has become infamous, remembered across the world as one of the major battles of the First World War. Tragically, over 500,000 allied and German soldiers were killed, injured, or declared missing over the course of the battle, which raged until the 10th of November 1917 and impacted upon lives as far afield as Canada, Australia, India and South Africa. The casualties were also felt much closer to home, however, as the Royal Hampshire Regiment (known as the Hampshire Regiment prior to 1946) played an important role in the battle. This blog post will remember the men of the Hampshire Regiment in keeping with memorials and tributes across the world which, today, mark the centenary of Passchendaele.
‘My platoon was all Hampshire men… they came from villages I knew, and as they got knocked off I said to myself, there goes Hartley Wintney or Old Basing. It was like wiping those places off the map… some of them I’d even been to school with and I said to myself, Hampshire’s getting a good old doing.’
Firstly, in order to situate the conflict in the context of the First World War, The Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele (after the Flemish village which was the final objective captured by British and Empire troops), was a major Allied campaign in Flanders during the First World War. Rather than one battle, the Third Ypres campaign was, in fact, a series of operations which took place between the 31st of July and the 10th of November, 1917. The strategic aim of these operations was to break through German defences and capture enemy naval bases along the Belgian coast from where U-Boats were launching numerous attacks on British Royal Navy and merchant ships. The campaign infamously failed to achieve this objective, and resulted in heavy losses on both sides.
The campaign was preceded by the Battle of Messines (7th – 14th of June, 1917) which opened with the British detonation of 19 large mines under German lines. The attack, in which the 15th Hampshire took part, succeeded in capturing the strategically important high ground along the Messines Ridge and paved the way for the much larger operation further north which began exactly a century ago today, on the 31st of July.
The first operation of the Third Ypres campaign then began, at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Here, the 14th Hampshire were in action as part of the 41st Division’s attack from northwest of Wieltje towards St Julien; a distance of around 3,000 yards. The battalion captured three German lines and 200 prisoners, at a loss of 63 killed and 161 wounded. At one stage during the attack, 2nd Lieutenant Denis Hewitt was reorganising his Company when a shell exploded nearby, injuring him and setting fire to both the signal lights in his haversack and his clothing. After extinguishing the flames, and sustaining serious burns, Hewitt persevered by leading his men forward into the face of heavy German machine-gun fire and playing a major part in the capture of the battalion’s final objective. Tragically, having reached it, Hewitt was shot and killed by sniper. For his gallantry, however, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and the 14th Hampshire were able to hold their position for two days before being withdrawn on the 3rd of August.
A short time later, The Battle of Langemarck (16th – 18th of August, 1917) became the second Allied attack of the Third Ypres campaign. The 2nd Hampshire, as part of the 29th Division, had been in reverse during the Pilckem Ridge operation, but they rapidly became involved with the conflict. On the night of the 15th of August, the battalion traversed boggy ground (so boggy, in fact, that some of the men who fell into waterlogged shell holes had to be lifted out using ropes) to an assembly point northeast of Pilckem. At quarter to five the following morning, the Hampshires advanced behind a creeping barrage and secured their two principle objectives. During the fighting, Sergeant Finch led an attack on an enemy strongpoint. Remarking on his courage, The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum notes that Finch dashed ahead of the British barrage, ‘killing four Germans single-handed and taking the blockhouse with some 20 prisoners.’ The Corps commander, Lord Cavan, warmly congratulated the Hampshires for their achievement when he inspected them on the 19th of August and, on the 25th of August, the battalion was pulled out of the line to begin nearly a month’s deserved respite from the fighting.
The 15th Hampshire remained stationed at the front line, however, and became involved in the Battle of the Menin Bridge Road (20th – 25th September). By the 25th of August 1917, Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief, had become dissatisfied with the limited gains made during the opening phase of the Third Ypres campaign. He therefore passed responsibility for operations from Fifth Army Commander General, Sir Hubert Gough, to General Sir Herbert Plumer of Second Army.
After a three-week pause in fighting, the Battle of Menin Ridge is said to have opened in fine weather, a stark contrast to the heavy rainfall that would become synonymous with the Battle of Passchendaele. Now focusing on more limited objectives and with additional heavy artillery support, the British attacked on a 14,500 yard front. By mid-morning they had captured most of their objectives to a depth of 1,500 yards.
Among the units taking part, the 15th Hampshire had successfully secured their first two objectives before becoming entrenched in a desperate struggle to seize the third objective, Green Line. This was close to Tower Trench and the German strongpoint known as Tower Hamlets, a mass of concrete dugouts and pill boxes. Only 130 men could be collected for the attack, but they pressed forward nonetheless and soon established themselves in the Green Line, taking 40 prisoners. This number included 30 Germans taken from a dug-out by 2nd Lieutenant Montague Moore, supported by only half a dozen men, who then consolidated their position and defended it against several counter-attacks and their own artillery, who were unaware of their new position.
The following day, Moore was the most senior officer left in the Green Line. The regimental museum notes that ‘he showed great resourcefulness and composure, withdrawing his men slightly to avoid the British barrage but then re-occupying the position directly the moment it stopped.’ Early the next morning however, another British barrage destroyed the rifles and rations of the surviving Hampshires, forcing Moore and his men back to the line of the second objective. Tragically, of the 130 men who had begun the attack 36 hours earlier, only ten remained. For his gallantry, 2nd Lieutenant Moore was awarded the Victoria Cross, but the battalion faced heavy casualties. Six officers and 83 men were killed or declared missing, while seven officers and 251 were wounded.
The remaining men of the 15th Hampshire were relieved by the 14th Battalion which took part in the opening of the Battle of Polygon Wood (26th September – 3rd of October), an operation that finally saw the British capture of Tower Hamlets. On the 27th of September, the 39th Division (to which the 14th and 15th Battalions were assigned) was, at last, relieved.
Also in September, the 1st Hampshire moved from the Arras sector to Flanders where, on the 4th of October, they took part in the Battle of Broodseinde. This was to be the last of the Allied autumn attacks to take place in fine weather. The battalion attacked northwest of Poelcappelle, suffering 50% casualties before returning to Monchy, near Arras on the 18th of October. The Battle of Poelcappelle also involved the 2nd Hampshire Battalion. Unlike the Battle of Broodseinde, however, Poelcappelle was dogged by bad weather and supply problems which would greatly impact upon the conditions faced by the men.
The 2nd Hampshire Battalion soon became involved in heavy fighting north of Langemarck. However, together with the 4th Worcestershires, they successfully secured the Namur Crossing and then their second objective before being held up before they could achieve their third. After nightfall, the Hampshires went on to relieve the Newfoundland Regiment in what had become the front line, astride the Poelcappelle-Les Cinq Chemins road. Despite the wet and treacherous ground, the battalion worked to consolidate the line the following day.
That afternoon, a detachment under Captain Philip Cuddon attacked and captured an obstinate German strongpoint near Cairo House. Cuddon was later given a bar to his Military Cross for his role in the assault while Lieutenant-Colonel T.C. Spring, who had displayed exemplary leadership and courage throughout the operation, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
On the night of the 7th of October, three days before the Third Ypres campaign would draw to a close, the Hampshires were relieved, finally bringing to an end the regiment’s active involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele.
If you would like to learn more about the Royal Hampshire Regiment’s involvement with the Battle of Passchendaele, their museum (which can be found on Southgate Street in Winchester) is an excellent place to start.
I’d lusted after Edinburgh from afar for absolutely ages, but it was only last week– after years of increasingly desperate planning– that I finally got the chance to visit the city of my dreams.
Getting off the Megabus was tricky. For one, I’d been sitting for a twelve hour coach journey and my joints were stubbornly refusing to work. But there was something else, something which made me pause at the automatic door, probably to the great annoyance of the coach driver. It was a deep-seated nervousness, combined with a sense of This is it! You’re actually here!
You see, after years of hoping and dreaming, the reality of it scared me. What if Edinburgh failed to live up to my ridiculously high expectations? What if, after all, it was simply the grey, ‘gloomy’ city my lecturer had described in a reply to my Sorry, won’t be in next week’s lecture, third year is too much and I’m running away to Scotland for a while email? (Of course the real, Actual Responsible Adult™ reason for visiting Edinburgh was to scope out the postgrad open day, but I’ll run away from that as well, while I can).
Photo courtesy of Wendy Li
Photo courtesy of Bryony Lumsdale
Eventually I did get off the coach and, in a bit of a daze, I wheeled both myself and my suitcase out of the station and on to North Saint Andrew Street. The first thing that hit me, straight away, was the temperature. It was freezing, but absurdly pleasant after sitting in a stuffy coach all night. In the east, the sun was rising above the distant Firth of Forth, and the sky was a gorgeous shade of purple, specked with deep oranges and strands of golden yellow which were reflected off the tall Georgian buildings nearby. My hair, caught up in the near-Arctic wind, whipped around me and, while I had barely slept all night, I felt exhilarated. I knew then– as cheesy as it may sound– that Edinburgh would not disappoint.
So we set off in search of Justin, our Airbnb host for the week, to collect keys and settle in before a long day of open day-ing and thinking of the future-ing. He was a little late and for a moment, huddled together against the cold on Nicholson Street, we wondered if Airbnb was possibly all a big scam. But Justin soon arrived, and was lovely. He gave us a quick tour of the flat –bathroom here, kitchen there, keys through the letter box when you leave – and then left us to recover from the journey and de-zombify ourselves for the day ahead.
Justin’s impossibly beautiful Airbnb flat, would 100% recommend. He even provided complementary bottles of Irn Bru and teacakes. An absolute angel.
Justin’s impossibly beautiful Airbnb flat, would 100% recommend. He even provided complementary bottles of Irn Bru and teacakes. An absolute angel.
The open day at The University of Edinburgh was brilliant. As the main reason for travelling 418.3 gruelling miles in a Megabus, I found it both useful and decidedly worth it. Still not 100% sure of the course itself though, I’m possibly leaning ever so slightly more towards another one at the moment, but it’s a shame because I fell completely head-over-heels for the university itself. Also, credit where credit’s due, the staff and open day helpers were excellent throughout the day, answering any questions we had and being very friendly.
Afterwards we all returned to Justin’s and had well-deserved naps, relishing at the prospect of sleeping in actual beds rather than a crowded moving vehicle. I slept deeply and dreamlessly and woke feeling refreshed, if still a little tired. We had dinner– a lovely meal of pasta and lentils courtesy of Wendy then left the house again for a haunted ghost walk of Edinburgh’s underground spaces with City of the Dead Tours.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Li
Photo courtesy of Bryony Lumsdale
It was raining buckets when we left the house, and positively chucking it down by the time we arrived at the meeting point along the Royal Mile. The drenched cobble stones and masonry were a glossy charcoal, like something out of a melodramatic Victorian murder mystery, glittering with the reflected reds and oranges of streetlights that could so easily have been gaslights. Just as I was thinking all that’s missing is Jack The Ripper, the tour guide appeared. He was draped in a thick black cloak, with a top hat perched on his head, and he called us over to the group with a thick Scots accent.
As he led the group to our underground destination deep in the Edinburgh vaults, he spoke about the history of the local area. It was embellished for effect, and there were certain bits that didn’t sound entirely historically accurate, but his words rang with a gritty realism. For the most part, he didn’t mention hauntings or ghostly goings on, but instead created a sense of horror through his descriptions of the conditions experienced by the very poorest of society.
He led us down ambling side-roads and winding cobbled streets, through historic red-light districts which were now lined with tourist shops and artisan bakeries, speaking all the while of the horrific overcrowding of the eighteenth century city, the dire mortality rates, and the failures of the state and the church in caring for the poor. When of course we finally did make it underground, he regaled us with ghost stories and descriptions of the South Bridge Entity which was said to dwell in the vaults. It was spooky, without a doubt, but I felt that the true horror of the night was resoundingly in his descriptions of the past.
As we emerged above ground again, the Old Town stretched out around us, appearing both ageless and ancient. It was all too easy to imagine the sights he had described, and the people who had suffered in this place. That was what haunted me most.
It soon started to rain heavily again and we were drenched trying to find our way home in the labyrinth of backstreets. Naturally, when Google Maps failed to work, we blamed the South Bridge Entity for making us lose our way.
Day Two: 17/11/16
Had a slight lie-in to recover from the knackering twelve-hour journey, and ended up leaving the house just after lunchtime. Our first port of call was the National Museum of Scotland, which I was embarrassingly keen to visit. It was a stunning building, both inside and out, which really did credit to the fascinating exhibits. The hands-on science and technology gallery was great fun, and we spent far too long playing with the interactive exhibits, making hot air balloons lift off and programming a robot to do our bidding. There was also a fair bit of snapchatting going on as we took in the culture which, to be fair, some exhibits seemed to directly cry out for.
As dedicated Outlanderfans, Bryony and I soon headed to the eighteenth century section, where we tried and failed to be dignified in our adoration of the era. Here, we were able to sit in a miniature thatched cottage, listen to traditional music of the period, squeeze into children’s dress-up clothes, and attempt to take in as much info as we possibly could. The exhibits on Culloden and the Jacobite risings in particular were beautifully comprehensive, and it was tricky to pull ourselves away from it all.
I’m basically Claire Fraser tbh
We could have happily sat in that thatched cottage reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie for hours, but it was getting late and we wanted to visit the Royal Mile before the shops shut. So we dragged ourselves away and exited via the (genuinely amazing) gift shop. It was then only a short walk before we found ourselves on one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets. The Royal Mile was lush and, to tell you the truth, I spent far too much money in its many tourist shops. I bought a gorgeously warm and cosy Edinburgh hoodie for myself, and presents for friends and family, as well as what felt like a few hundred postcards. Worth every penny, to be honest. Je ne regrette rien.
We were making our way back to the house when, purely by chance, we realised how close we were to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Of course, being the mature adults that we are, we were thrilled at the prospect of visiting one of Scotland’s most haunted locations after dark. It was nearly pitch-black and we walked around quickly, using the light from our phones to guide us, while attempting to avoid the group of people filming a Most Haunted style documentary in one corner of the cemetery. Eventually we began to feel unsettled and decided to leave.
Visiting Greyfriars Kirkyard
Ghost hunting in process
A rare sighting of the ghostly Gabrielle. Very spooky.
Day Three: 18/11/16
We woke up early in order to make it to the Glasgow University open day. Here, almost immediately upon arrival, I fell in love with the Glaswegian subway which was so refreshingly easy to use after years spent getting lost on the tube. The city had a buzz to it that’s difficult to describe, but it was artsy and ancient, energetic and fun. Glasgow doesn’t take itself seriously, which I really love about it.
The open day itself was perfect, and as of now I’m definitely planning to make an application. Everyone we encountered bent over backwards to help us and one man even walked us to the subway station in the pouring rain when we asked for directions. The city is undoubtedly deserving of its title as the world’s friendliest city.
After the open day, we had a quick look around the Hunterian Museum, then did a fair amount of tourist-ing, followed by a little bit of shopping where I was very tempted to buy quite a lot of gloves. Spotting the Duke of Wellington statue, cone and all, was a definite highlight of the trip. So too was dinner at Mono, a charming vegan restaurant/record shop in the city centre. I had a delicious to-fish and chips (battered tofu = Pure Heaven) followed by a chocolate avocado and walnut tart. Really wish there was a restaurant like this nearer to Winchester, because I could quite easily spend most of my life there.
Dinner at Mono
Admiring the Christmas decorations in Glasgow
Famous statue of the Duke of Wellington
As it was, I left Glasgow feeling sad that the day was over. I would have loved to spend more time in this brilliant city.
Day Four: 19/11/16
View from above…
… and view from below
We spent our fourth day storming Edinburgh castle. I was amazed by how much there was to see and do here, with many individual museums nestled within the castle’s keep. After a fascinating but freezing guided tour followed by the 1pm firing of the cannon, we had a chilly lunch in the tea rooms, huddled around Bryony’s teapot for warmth. We then headed to the National War Museum, where we spent well over an hour reading displays and being drawn into the history on offer. We even found a radiator in one room, which was a godsend.
Not to mention, it was also the perfect spot for the odd #MuseumSelfie which really is terribly good fun. In the words of curator Mar Dixon (@MarDixon), “I always feel so bad for those people who don’t get #MuseumSelfie or any fun in museums. I just want to hug them and tell them it’ll be ok.”
It was difficult to decide where to visit next, as we were completely spoilt for choice. Eventually though we settled on the Prisons of War which showcased the living conditions of POWs held there throughout the centuries. These men ranged from French sailors captured in 1758, shortly after the Seven Years’ War, to soldiers of the American War of Independence (1775-83), right up to inmates from wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). The surrounding displays told tales of the prisoners, one of whom was a five-year old drummer boy, taken at Trafalgar (1805). Another, desperate to escape, hid in a dung cart, only to be killed on the rocks below as the contents were tipped over the castle wall. Four more succeeded in escaping in 1799, by lowering themselves down the rock on washing lines, while in the more audacious outbreak of 1811, 49 prisoners cut their way through the parapet wall, beside the battery. All but one escaped and the hole is still there today.
Next we sampled some lovely Bruadar whiskey in the Whiskey and Finest Food shop, then visited The Royal Palace, a principle royal residence from the eleventh century up until the early seventeenth. It was a fascinating building, with a grand history. Indeed, it was here that, on the 19th of June, 1566, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland. It was truly remarkable to think that the first king of England and Scotland, a man who would go on to shape both nations so dramatically, had been born in such an impossibly small room.
The next part of our visit to the castle was spent admiring the Scottish crown jewels, which are the oldest in the British Isles, created in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and James V. They were first used for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in September, 1543. We saw the Stone of Destiny as well, also known as the Stone of Scone, which is traditionally thought to have once been part of an ancient royal bench-throne, and imbued with sacred powers. For centuries, Scottish kings were ceremoniously crowned atop the stone, tying the monarch to the land forevermore.
The Stone has an eventful history. In 1296, believing himself to have a God-given right of superiority over Scotland, Edward I forcibly removed the Scots’ royal regalia and holy relics, along with 65 chests containing the records of the kingdom. In short, he took all the objects of statehood, making sure that the Stone of Destiny was in his haul, it was removed from the abbey of Scone in August, 1296 and sent to Westminster Abbey. Here, it was enclosed in a new throne, the Coronation Chair, where it has been used ever since in the coronations of most monarchs of England and, from 1714, all the rulers of Great Britain.
However, on Christmas Day, 1950, four students from the University of Glasgow removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. On the 11th of April, 1951, it turned up 500 miles away, at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey! Afterwards, it was once again taken to Westminster Abbey, but the actions of the students made people begin to ask Why wasn’t the stone in Scotland?
Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland on the 700th anniversary of its removal, under the proviso that it may be ‘borrowed’ for any future coronations at Westminster Abbey. It’s a truly remarkable object, and I could easily have spent all day reading about its history. There’s also a great film called The Stone of Destiny which tells the story of the four students who returned the Stone to Scotland. It’s a bit clichéd, and Charlie Cox’s Scottish accent is more than a little bit dreadful, but it’s a genuinely heart-warming tale, and I would really recommend it to anyone interested in the Stone’s history.
Finally, after a quick look around Saint Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest structure in Edinburgh (dating from 1130), and a moment of quiet reflection in The Scottish National War Memorial, it was time to leave Edinburgh Castle. Our visit was incredible, without a doubt 100% worth the admission fee. There was so much to see and do here, and exhibits to entertain people of all ages and historical inclinations. A really marvellous day out.
Photo credit to Wendy Li
Photo credit to Wendy Li
We walked along Princes Street on the way back to Justin’s house, recreating the opening scene of Trainspotting. Once again, the city was freezing but exhilarating, generating a genuine ‘Lust for Life’ in us all.
We got back to the house quite quickly, having finally learnt to navigate the tangled web of Edinburgh’s streets, and ordered delicious pizza from the incredible ‘Dough Pizza’. A truly ‘Perfect Day’.
Day Five: 20/11/16
Returned to Winchester today.
Annoyingly, the coach journey was delayed due to traffic and road closures, and ended up taking almost 15 hours altogether. A little bit hellish, but certainly not something that could detract from the overall experience of our trip.
Because, you see, it turned out that my expectations of Edinburgh weren’t ‘ridiculously high’ at all. This was something the city proved to me day after day, as I fell more deeply in love with it than I ever could have anticipated.
Another factor I couldn’t have anticipated is my new-found dependency on Irn Bru. Really have to thank Bryony, my enabler, for introducing me to that little habit. Definitely not something to regret though.
May have developed a slight Irn Bru dependency
Return coach journey
15 hour coach journey. Ouch.
Special thanks to my lovely companions Bryony (@bryonyjo31), Maddie (@maddiech_) and Wendy (@whitecinnamonsugar).
The 1st of July, 1916 marked the beginning of The Somme Offensive, one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone, 57,000 casualties were sustained by British Forces, a figure significantly higher than the predicted 10,000. Peter Barton, speaking in a recent documentary for the BBC (The Somme 1916- From Both Sides of The Wire), notes that it was this figure upon which the medical corps based all of their planning; ‘from hospitals, to bandages, to graves.’
As the actual number of casualties proved to be over five times greater, there were serious implications for the fate of those wounded. The catastrophic underestimation of medical requirements meant that resources were soon overwhelmed, and countless men died whose lives might otherwise have been saved. Barton stresses this point, suggesting that the prediction of 10,000 casualties was emblematic of the habitual underestimation of the German enemy.
Soldiers wounded at the Somme
Soldiers wounded at the Somme
Stewart Emmens however, writing in ‘Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care’, is rather more forgiving. ‘This was war on a vastly different scale,’ he writes, ‘a new kind of war that produced levels of wounding unparalleled in severity and casualty numbers.’ It was also a war fought in unimaginable conditions, within an environment that could be hugely detrimental to efforts to save the wounded. As such, a great many medical challenges arose from the carnage of the Somme, challenges which Emmens believes would later be countered by scientific, technical or strategic innovations.
One such example, offered by Emmens, is the pioneering use of blood transfusions in 1917. As although the procedure had been around prior to 1914, it was only later in the war, after the experiences of the Somme, that the technique was refined. The blood transfusion set represented a major advance in medical treatment which arrived late in the war, but within a very short period of time ‘proved the life-saving potential of what is now a standard procedure in emergency medicine.’ Ultimately, it has helped to save countless lives, both during the war and in the years since.
Yet, Emmens also writes that ‘it is not a simple case of “the triumph of medicine.”’ He asserts that the medical experience of 1914-1918, and the implications for the years that followed, forms ‘a vast and complex narrative.’ Therefore, while real medical innovation did arise- as new techniques and strategies were pioneered, rediscovered, or adapted and evolved through experience- many mistakes were also made. This was particularly apparent in the short-term as, ‘time and time again,’ medical services were simply overwhelmed by both the nature and the sheer scale of casualties.
Many who witnessed the effects of these shortages first-hand were the nurses, doctors and medics who served during the conflict. Sister Edith Appleton, a nurse who worked at General Hospital No. 1 during the Somme, kept a diary which reveals a harrowing change in tone during the first week of the battle. It makes for difficult reading.
Sunday, July 2, 1916
The last eight days the guns have been firing the whole time. Fine big ones they must be for us to hear them so distinctly. The Germans have been giving themselves up and coming across in dazed groups – which is fine.
How absolutely glorious if we knock them right out and level them flat, so our infantry and cavalry can have a walkover such as would make good reading in history.
Tuesday, July 4
Wounded! Hundreds upon hundreds on stretchers, being carried, walking – all covered from head to foot in well-caked mud. We had horribly bad wounds in numbers – some crawling with maggots, some stinking and tense with gangrene.
One poor lad had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes. He was quite calm, and very tired. He said, ‘Shall I need an operation? I can’t see anything.’ Poor boy, he never will.
Thursday, July 6
I give up trying to describe it – it beats me. In ordinary times we get a telegraph from Abbeville saying a train with so many on board has left and is coming to us.
Then they stopped giving numbers – just said “full train”. Not even a telegram comes – but the full trains do.
Yesterday, in addition to our 1,300 beds we took over the lounge of a large restaurant, the orderlies’ barracks, the ambulance garage, the Casino front and part of the officers’ mess, and all used except for the garage- which is ready for today. We were not able to send any on to England, as the boats were full, so if full trains continue to pour in today we shall have to start on private people’s houses.
‘Casualty clearance stations were soon overwhelmed.’ She writes, ‘A basic triage system assessed the injured upon arrival, and many men were simply put to one side to die; others, unable to access medical assistance, died where they fell. Those who were fortunate enough to reach first-aid posts and advanced dressing stations were quickly treated with rudimentary dressings. As many of the injured as possible were placed on hospital trains and shipped back to England. Casualty numbers were so high that only the most seriously wounded could be kept in France.
‘By 3pm on 1 July news of the appallingly high casualty figures gradually filtered through to Sloggett [Director General of the Medical Services], and he called the rail transport office at Amiens to urgently order more hospital trains. By this time base hospitals were overrun with wounded. Every conceivable mode of transport had been commandeered to shift wounded men away from the battlefield toward some semblance of care, and medical personnel worked around the clock to help the injured.’
Hospital during the Somme
Nurses at a field hospital
Dorothy Field was one of the many medical personnel to work ‘around the clock’ during the first week of the Somme. She was a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachments of the British Red Cross, working at General Hospital No. 10. In small pocket diaries, Dorothy recorded brief details of her wartime experience. For example the first convoy of 170 men who arrived at the hospital at 4am on the 2nd of July, described by Dorothy as the ‘going over the top result. Practically all surgicals.’ (Source). Over the next forty-eight hours, four convoys of wounded arrived, while two convoys of stabilised patients left for other hospitals in France or Britain. Such was the intensity of work at the hospital that it was not until the 13th of July that Dorothy had a rest from her duties.
Dorothy’s diary also manages to capture the horrors of war in one simple, epitomising sentence: ‘Too awful for words.’
Stardust Years is a brilliantly unique shop on the Winchester High Street, specialising in vintage and historical fashion items. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the shop for the first time and at once fell in love with the beautiful items on display. After my visit, I approached the owner Karen Fitzsimmons, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about historical fashion and the growing popularity of vintage-wear.
Q:When did Stardust Years open?
A: July, 2013
Q: Where do you get the items from?
A: That’s a bit like asking Tinkerbell where she gets her Magic Fairy Dust! All I can say is that I go out and source all our stock myself. We do not buy over the counter so, if you’re reading this and you have a treasure to sell please don’t come to us as you’ll only be disappointed.
Q:It must be hard to part with some of the beautiful items on sale, what has been your favourite item that you’ve encountered?
A: Oh, it is! I think there are too many to choose from but if I had to choose it would be some of the Rayne Shoes that I had when we first opened the shop. As a result of researching Rayne Shoes, I met Nick Rayne, the son of Sir Edmund Rayne who steered the family business during its most successful years. Rayne Shoes supplied many Hollywood stars with shoes, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. They also made the Queen’s wedding shoes.
Nick bought some of our shoes for the Rayne Shoe Archive (you can see some of our shoes – including the pair we donated) in the book, Rayne, Shoes for Stars which accompanied last year’s exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. We were invited to the Book Launch at the Dorchester Hotel, held in the famous Oliver Messel Room. It was wonderful. I was very sad at parting with the shoes so soon after I had found them – my husband took a photo of me saying goodbye to them when we were packing them for the courier’s collection! However, they led me on an exciting journey and I know their beauty and craftsmanship will be enjoyed by so many more people in the future.
Q:When did your interest in vintage and historical fashion begin and why?
A: I loved Cinema from an early age and I grew up watching fabulous films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s which gave me my love for the fashions of the past. They were so creative and glamorous.
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939)
Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont in ‘Rear Window’ (1954)
Q:Is there a particular era that you feel drawn to, and if so why is this? (Would you say it was based on the aesthetics of the era or a historical interest? Or both?)
A: My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s. Across those decades there was so much diversity and creativity, even though we were plunged into a World War. I love the tailoring, the detail and the care that went into the creation of accessories as well as clothing. Designers of some of the most glamorous fashions of the day were also involved in developing Utility Clothing (eg Digby Morton and Hardy Amies) and functional, eccentric items such as the Gas Mask Shoulder Bag (H Wald).
Q:What era of clothing is the most popular among your customers, and why do you think this is?
A: I think the 1950s is the most popular due to a number of factors. There are the customers who are ardent vintage fans and attend a lot of vintage dances and weekend events. The most popular period for vintage events seems to be the 1940s and the 1950s. Then there are the customers who are looking for a dress for a special event and find the choice on the High Street limiting. These customers find our 1950s rails attractive because of the diversity of styles that ran throughout the decade. Whatever your figure, you can find something that suits you and looks wonderful. The 40 and 50s were a time of great social change and these changes are reflected in contemporary fashion.
Q: What is the strangest/quirkiest vintage item you’ve encountered in the shop?
A: I can’t think of anything strange! I always have to consider who would buy whatever I source. What I do love about vintage is that you can find quirky elements such as a 1940s clasp on a handbag or a clasp to a necklace. We did have a marvellous 1920s bag with a mirror base and a large carved, enamel clasp which had to be twisted in a particular way to open the bag. You can find lovely, unique accessories inside what appears to be a fairly plain handbag, too.
Q:Do you have a vintage fashion icon or inspiration?
A: Too many to mention in terms of designers but Christian Dior is one of my favourites. I love those designers who also designed for the cinema such as Adrian, Edith Head and Irene Lentz and any of the actresses they dressed.
A vintage advert for Dior shoes.
Dior’s ‘Soirée de Lahore’ dress, 1955.
Q:Equally, do you have a contemporary fashion icon or inspiration?
Q:Can you see the influence of past styles on contemporary fashion? If so, what would an example of this be?
A: Oh, yes. Nothing seems to be new. There was a recent resurgence of 1950/60s fashions, as well as the 1970s with maxi dresses (which, of course were pre-dated by earlier fashions!). I do wonder if future fashion will ever be as exciting as the developments that occurred during the 1910s – 60s.
Of course, fashion historians will be able to point to other great periods in history. As the way we live changes, so will the way we dress so it’s interesting to see how young fashion designers will translate that into fashion and accessories.
Q:Why do you think vintage fashion is becoming so popular? In your opinion, would the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge have anything to do with this?
A: Popular culture has always influenced fashion so it’s no surprise that very successful period dramas have contributed to the continuing popularity of vintage fashion. There have also been a lot of anniversary events around the two World Wars and I think that has increased the interest in the 1940s, in particular.
The way in which we celebrate our lives has also been influenced by popular culture and social history. We’ve seen customers buying vintage for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. Sometimes, it’s been a Mad Men birthday party or a 1930s wedding. I once had three ladies in one afternoon all going to the same 1940s party but none of them knew each other. None of them liked to dress in unfamiliar clothing! (With each lady, I looked at our reference books, discussed what they already had in their wardrobe and accented it with an accessory or advice on hair).
Matthew Goode and Michelle Dockery in ‘Downton Abbey,’ 2010-2015.
Lily James as Lady Rose in ‘Downton Abbey’ 2010-2015.
Q:What would you say to someone with a newly found interest in vintage and historical fashion? Any tips or advice?
A: I would recommend joining the mailing list of the Fashion & Textile Museum in London. They have some fabulous exhibitions. I would advise anyone wanting to buy vintage to be discerning – for me, there’s a difference between vintage fashion and old clothing. Good vintage will cost more but it’s worth it for the superb tailoring and quality of the fabrics. I have some customers who come to Stardust Years because they’ve become collectors and buy investment pieces. Others, are looking for a high-end piece of fashion that’s unique and won’t be identifiable as a “High Street piece.” Then there are those customers who just want to enjoy wearing the fashions and feeling a little closer to the past.
Also, always try on a garment – and never over jeans! I love wearing vintage but shapes have changed – plus, we’re all individuals! I’ve never agreed with fashion sizes – we don’t fit a designated size. For this reason, I never buy my vintage wardrobe online.
Finally, remember there are no rules – you don’t have to go for the “complete” vintage look. Sometimes, it’s just as much fun and stylish to put the past with the present and create an individual look for you.
Q:Is there any era that you dislike in terms of the fashion trends? If so, why is that?
A: The 1970s – I remember it the first time round – and I wasn’t keen on it then!
Though, looking back, I do admire what designers like Zandra Rhodes and Emilio Pucci achieved.
Q: What do you think we can learn from vintage and historical fashion?
A: The way people lived their lives, how our values have changed and how much effort went into creating something – whether it was a dress or a handbag. People comment that our stock is in very good condition (most of it, anyway!) and that’s generally because, people didn’t have many clothes. “Sunday Best” was exactly that. Hardly worn and very well looked after because their “Sunday Best” was the only Best they had.
I’ve seen haute couture items by Dior, from the 1940s and 50s, which were constructed with wide inner seams so that as the wearer’s shape changed, the fashion house could alter the dress, accordingly. Nowadays, we live in “disposable” times – if something breaks, needs a part or needs letting out, we don’t mend it, we throw it away and just buy a replacement.
Q:Have you ever encountered an item with a really fascinating history attached?
A: We have a costume once worn by actress Glenda Jackson in the film The Incredible Sarah, based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. The designer, Anthony Mendleson was nominated for Best Costume Design in 1976 (but lost out to Danilo Donati’s Fellini’s Casanova). It has a gorgeous circular train and would be a beautiful wedding dress. We also have a fur wrap believed to have been worn by actress, Vivien Leigh.
Sometimes, the most interesting items are the ones that come with clues to their owner/wearer’s life eg the 1930s clutch bag that has a theatre ticket inside it, dated the 18th of August, 1945. When we find such clues to its past, we always keep the item with the vintage piece. I once had a 1940s suit with a damaged skirt. The jacket was priced but the customer had to take the skirt, too (at no charge, of course). I couldn’t bear to have them parted, not after they had been together for over 75 years!
Q:Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Just that if you find a vintage item remember, it is just like you; individual and unique – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else!
Q: Thank you so much for your time.
A great many thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions, I loved reading your responses. Stardust Years will be celebrating its third birthday this weekend. To help celebrate in style, there will be free signature cocktails as well as the return of the TLC Rail, and vintage ‘Rescue Remnants,’ going free to a good home! On Sunday afternoon, between 1 and 3pm, Stardust Years will also be joined by Virginia Hannan, Bespoke Dress Design who will be available to offer tips and suggestions on dress design and alterations.
As we mark the centenary of The Easter Rising, a recent article by Olivia O’Leary for The Guardian lead me to consider the involvement of women in the conflict and on the involvement of the aristocrat-turned-rebel, Countess Markievicz, in particular.
Easter fell early this year, on March the 27th, but a century ago Easter Sunday was celebrated on the 23rd of April, with Easter Monday falling on the 24th. However, the religious festivities of 1916 were to be greatly overshadowed by the outbreak of an armed conflict in Ireland, one which came to be known as The Easter Rising. The Rising, a rebellion against British rule, largely took place in Dublin, with smaller skirmishes breaking out across the country. It began on Easter Monday, 1916, when a group of around 1,800 men and women took over key buildings in Dublin, transforming The General Post Office into their headquarters. It was on the steps of the Post Office that Patrick Pearse read aloud a statement, known as the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which he declared that Irish men and women would fight for their independence from the crown.
The British army, caught unawares by the development and with forces focussed on World War One, was initially slow to react but it soon took measures to halt the rebellion. Within a few days, extra troops had arrived in Ireland. Fighting broke out on the streets of Dublin, and it is thought that almost five hundred people were killed in the conflict. Of them around two hundred and sixty– three for every rebel death – were civilians, with many killed as a result of crossfire in the busy city, or of the British use of artillery and heavy machine guns. The Rising began on April the 24th and lasted for just five days, though its legacy is still celebrated by Irish Republicans, and the conflict is a common theme in many of the famous Belfast murals. Many others, however, such as the former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, criticise the ‘celebratory’ tone surrounding memorials. He believes that ‘It is important that in remembering and commemorating what happened that we don’t glorify or justify it.’
The centenary of the conflict lead many to discuss the way it is commemorated, and indeed whether the legacy is worth remembering at all. In a recent article for The Guardian, for example, published shortly before Easter this year, journalist Olivia O’Leary voiced her admiration at her grandfather’s involvement in the Rising, yet her disappointment in the outcome. She wonders, ‘What happened to the promise of equality in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916, … addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”?’ O’Leary goes on to note that while the proclamation declared an end to British rule, it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. What’s more, writes O’Leary, it made a commitment to universal suffrage, something which was extraordinary at the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote. O’Leary writes of her disappointment therefore that the progressive message ‘became stifled by a conservative culture obsessed with female chastity and purity.’
‘Historians,’ writes O’Leary, ‘now tell us that there was a tussle to have women included so pointedly in the proclamation.’ It was a struggle won by James Connolly and Constance Markievicz, the prominent feminist and socialist. Yet only two years later in the general election of 1918, ‘when Sinn Féin swept the boards,’ it was clear that the socialists and feminists had been pushed aside. ‘Most of the dreamers and visionaries had been shot in 1916’, writes O’Leary, ‘and a more pragmatic and conservative leadership concentrated totally on the nationalist goal of separation from the UK.’ Thus, when the Irish Labour movement decided to stand aside in 1918 so as not to split the nationalist vote, the only woman elected was Markievicz.
After reading O’Leary’s article, I was curious to read more about the involvement of women in The Easter Rising. In particular, I was keen to learn more about the role of Constance Markievicz, knowing very little about her beside her reputation as the ‘rebel countess.’ One post, by BBC History, notes that her exploits dominated contemporary press accounts of The Easter Rising. An instance of this being ‘the scene at the College of Surgeons when she kissed her revolver before handing it over to the British officer at the moment of surrender,’ a tale which passed instantly into Irish nationalist mythology. Quite something for a woman who had been born into the aristocratic Gore-Booths family in London, 1868, and presented at court to Queen Victoria in 1887.
The author writes that she married a Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, however they had little in common and separated amicably at the outbreak of World War One. Then, in 1909, Markievicz first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping the nationalist scouting organisation Na Fianna Éireann in their mission to train boys for participation in a war of liberation. She was also deeply involved with the Irish suffragette movement and focussed considerable energy into Inghinidhe na hEireann, a militant women’s organisation founded by Maude Gonne. Markievicz demonstrated further compassion in her work with the poor. In 1913, for example, during the Dublin Lockout, she worked tirelessly so as to provide food for the worker’s families.
Just two years later, she was involved in helping to organise and train the Irish Citizen Army. Indeed, during the Easter Rising, Markievicz was second-in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green/College of Surgeons, and she actively fought throughout the week. After the conflict, she was the only woman to be court-martialled, on May the 4th, 1916. While it has been suggested that Markievicz ‘crumpled up’ during her trial, there is little evidence to support this. Official records instead suggest that ‘she acted with courage, dignity and defiance’ at the trial, and declared “I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict reached by the court was unique; she was found ‘Guilty. Death by being shot,’ yet with a recommendation to mercy based ‘solely and only on account of her sex.’ The sentence was therefore commuted to a life sentence.
Markievicz ultimately served thirteen months in Irish and English gaols, and later claimed that her inspiration during the period of her imprisonment had been Thomas Clarke, a signatory of the Proclamation who had been executed alongside Pearse and MacDonagh on the 3rd of May, 1916. Afterwards she also was known for being unforgiving in her attitude towards the Irish Volunteer Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, who had opposed and tried to prevent the Rising. In the General Election of December, 1918, Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. However, as a member for Sinn Féin, she never took her seat in Westminster. Rather, she served as Minister of Labour (1919- 1921) in the first Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. She is known to have bitterly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December, 1921, and supported the anti-Treaty forces during the civil war. In 1921, aged 59, Markievicz died in hospital in Dublin. At her funeral, the working class of the city lined the streets.
Markievicz is perhaps the best known woman to have been active in the Easter Rising, but she was by no means the only one. In her article entitled Women of the Rising: Activists, Fighters & Widows, Sinéad McCoole writes of the many who fought alongside her, and are only now receiving recognition. Approximately three hundred women took part in the events of Easter week, 1916. This figure is one which McCoole draws from recently released material held by the Military Archives, and is much higher than previously thought. Beyond the statistics, McCoole also examines contemporary newspapers for ‘a more immediate insight into the roles played by women in 1916.’ One press report, for instance, stated that the women ‘were serving in the dining room of the Post Office dressed in their finest clothes, and wore knifes and pistols in their belts… wearing green and white and orange sashes.’ While another report, based on an account by a Red Cross nurse and published under the headline ‘Fearless Under Fire,’ expresses a great amount of admiration for ‘…these Irishwomen, who did their work with a cool and reckless courage, unsurpassed by any man from the first to the last day of the Rebellion.’
Indeed, the contribution of women attracted a great deal of international attention, and in the aftermath of the Rising many representatives of the American press came to interview the women who had been imprisoned. Kathleen Lynn, for example, who had served as Chief Medical Officer in the Irish Citizen Army later reflected that they were not what the media had expected; ‘We were not up to the mark and as snappy as they would have liked us to be. They got the impression that we were a poor lot.’ Yet, whatever the opinion of the American press, and whether or not the Easter Rising should be commemorated or simply remembered, the role of women in the conflict should not be overlooked. In a recent article entitled The Forgotten Role of Women Insurgents in The 1916 Rising, Tom Clonan effectively summarises by stating that while women continue to be ‘effectively airbrushed from historical accounts of the Rising and their sacrifices for the state routinely omitted in discussions about Irish identity and citizenship,’ the role they played in the struggle of 1916 and in the subsequent War of Independence was nonetheless vital.
‘How repressed were the Victorians?’ asks a recent article for The British Library. Writing a convincing case for a reassessment of Victorian sexuality, Dr Holly Furneaux challenges our assumptions about Victorian attitudes to sex, while considering the many ways in which theorists such as Michel Foucault have provided ‘new ways of understanding sex and sexuality in the period.’
‘Not so long ago,’ writes Furneaux in her fascinating article for The British Library, ‘it might have come as a surprise to see Queen Victoria described as “Britain’s sexiest Royal,”’ (quote taken from an Empire review of The Young Victoria). However, ‘Now,’ she suggests, ‘It seems we no longer only think of “straitlaced patriarchs making their wives and children miserable […], whaleboned women shrouding the piano legs for decency’s sake, then lying back and thinking of England.”’ (Matthew Sweet, ix). She goes on to write that such stereotypes of high prudery were famously critiqued by Michel Foucault as the ‘repressive hypothesis: the idea that Victorians could not mention sex.’ Foucault points out that, far from being silenced, sex was discussed everywhere in the 19th century in a wide range of contexts. Including, though not limited to, the law, medicine, religion, and education. Furneaux also goes on to write that ‘Much academic and popular work since has considered the many ways in which Victorians did experience and speak of desire.’
Queen Victoria herself, for instance, is known to have doted on her ‘dearest Albert’s’ physical perfections in her journal:
‘11th October, 1839
Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.’
‘Victoria’s frank expression of her desire cuts across another received view of the period;’ writes Furneaux, ‘that the enjoyment of sex was an exclusively male prerogative.’ One proponent of such a belief was William Acton, a gynaecological doctor. He wrote in his The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857) that ‘The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any king.’ Though Furneaux writes that Acton’s beliefs were so extreme that they ‘cannot be taken as representative,’ she acknowledges that similar views are ‘Almost certainly discernible in the virginal ideal of the “Angel in the House,” a term inaugurated by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem of that name.’ The poem which laid out the model of the domestic goddess, who apparently retained her chastity even as a wife and mother. Paraphrasing John Ruskin, Furneaux writes that ‘In her purity and capacity for “sweet ordering” […] the angel in the house was to sanctify the home as a refuge for her menfolk from the trouble of public life.’
Furthermore, Furneaux poses that ‘Gendered ideals of the sexual purity of the respectable woman, though never unchallenged, helped to enshrine a sexual double-standard.’ She believes that this ‘double-standard’ is all too apparent in the legislation of the time, with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 infamous for having set in law that women could only be divorced on the grounds of their adultery alone. In contrast, it had to be proved that men had ‘exacerbated adultery with other offences.’ Similarly, Furneaux offers the further example of the Contagious Diseases Act of the 1860s. The act has become somewhat notorious as it aimed to deal with the rife spread of sexually transmitted infections through the forcible medical examination of female prostitutes in garrison towns, yet made no suggestion of examining the male sufferers.
Furneaux also explores the cultural fascination with the opposite of the ‘angel in the house’, the ‘fallen woman.’ In the Victorian era, this was a broad term, which encompassed any woman who had, or appeared to have had, sexual experience outside of marriage, including adulteresses and prostitutes. The archetype of the ‘fallen woman’ appears as a common trope in so much Victorian literature and art. Furneaux writes that ‘Advice literature presented a woman’s “moral influence” as a result of her “natural and instinctive habits,” but then was forced to lay out these supposedly innate characteristics.’ She offers an example by Peter Gaskell, writing in 1833 that ‘Her love, her tenderness, her affectionate solicitude for his [her husband’s] comfort and enjoyment, her devotedness, her unwearyingly care.’ Furneaux responds, ‘All the energy that went into writing conduct books telling women how to behave shows that “proper” feminine behaviour was far from natural, and had to be taught.’
However, Furneaux believes that while recent work may have done a lot to complicate overly simplistic views of Victorian purity, ‘The idea of Victorian sexual repression lingers.’ She writes that this has ‘powerful roots’ in the prominently anti-Victorianist stance of Modernist writers, most notably Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Strachey, for instance, sought in Eminent Victorians (1918) to ‘liberate’ his generation from the ‘Perceived reticence and ignorance, especially in sexual matters, of their pre-Freudian fathers and grandfathers.’ While similarly, Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (1966), he elaborates on the views of Strachey by presenting the Victorians as ‘Sexual hypocrites, maintaining a veneer of respectability over an underbelly of prostitution and pornography.’ Furneaux dismisses the views of Strachey and Marcus, instead adhering to the belief Foucault sets out in The History of Sexuality (1976). That is to say that ‘Far from silencing sex as a taboo subject, the Victorians inaugurated many of the discourses- legal, medical and sexological […] that allowed sex to become a legitimate subject for investigation and discussion.’
The Victorian period was, after all, a key moment in the history of sexuality. Furneaux writes that ‘It is the era in which the modern terminologies we use to structure the ways we think and talk about sexuality were invented.’ She examines the roles of sexologists during the fin de siècle, where pioneers such as Richard von Kraft-Ebind and Havelock Ellis analysed and categorised human sexuality. They created terms such as ‘homosexual,’ ‘heterosexual’ and ‘nymphomaniac.’ An advancement which Furneaux believes was ‘valuable to the history of female sexuality.’ This is not to say, however, that she views the Victorian era as being entirely tolerant towards female or hetero-divergent sexuality. Indeed, she goes to great pains to remark upon the limitations of accommodation; seen most clearly perhaps with the trials and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Furneaux also comments upon the lack of discussion regarding lesbian relationships in the Victorian era, and sides with literary scholar Terry Castle in her hostility to the suggestion that there were ‘No lesbians before 1900.’ Instead she acknowledges that while the Victorian era was tolerant of female sexuality in many ways, arguably more so than is often thought, there were undoubtedly limitations to this tolerance, limitations which are most visible in Victorian interactions with the Other- whether queer, sex worker or another form of ‘fallen woman.’
Dr Holly Furneaux’s article on gender and sexuality in the Victorian era may be read in full here. Further articles by this author may be found here.
From Winchester Cathedral to the Rosslyn Chapel, the walls of Britain’s religious houses echo with the voices of a long-dead past. But why is medieval graffiti so commonplace? And what does it mean for modern historians?
In a recent article for History Extra, Jessica Hope explores various meanings behind the countless examples of graffiti which cover the walls of Britain’s medieval churches. She writes with disappointment that past generations of historians too often overlooked the inscriptions and doodles, viewing them as little more than the ‘creations of bored choirboys’ and therefore unworthy of academic or scholarly surveyal. However, she goes on, paradoxically much of the graffiti actually dates back to ‘long before there actually were and choirboys to be found in the church.’ Indeed, in recent years, new large-scale surveys have revived interest in medieval graffiti and, unsatisfied with the crude suggestions of the past, many historians are now undertaking academic research to reveal the meaning of medieval graffiti once and for all.
An example of such research is the work of Matthew Champion, which draws on thousands of examples from surviving medieval churches across the width and breadth of Britain. He believes that while graffiti in the twenty-first century may be seen as ‘both destructive and anti-social, and certainly not something that should be either welcomed or encouraged in our parish churches,’ this appears to be a relatively modern attitude. Conversely, during the Middle Ages, graffiti appears to have been both accepted and acceptable, leaving many of our medieval churches ‘quite literally covered with inscriptions.’
Champion writes that the purpose of studying medieval graffiti is simply that it is so unlike any other form of historical research. He suggests that ‘If you walk into just about any one of the surviving medieval churches scattered across the British countryside, you will undoubtedly see a wealth of features surviving from the Middle Ages- stained glass windows, the sheen of alabaster monuments and the dull glow of memorial brasses set into the floor. However, almost without exception, all of these were created by or for the top five or ten percent of medieval society; the parish elite that could, quite simply, afford to have themselves memorialised.’ Where then, asks Champion, are the lower orders of medieval society? Where are the common people who for generations worshipped within the church walls? Where are the memorials to the simple commoners who paid for, and in many cases helped to construct, these monuments to their ‘betters’?
While yes, occasionally these individuals do turn up in legal agreements, wills and major court rolls. However, that is only to say that such documents represent the times when those individuals came into contact with the authority of either the civil administration or the church. Certainly, they do not represent their everyday interactions with the church as either a building or an institution. Champion therefore argues that the voice of the people has ‘been muted and distorted by the conventions of the records themselves.’ In contrast, the graffiti has the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone; ‘from the lord of the manor and the parish priest, all the way down the social scale to the very lowliest of the congregation.’ They are, quite literally ‘the lost voices’ of the medieval church.
What then, asks Hope, are the newly rediscovered voices telling us? Champion suggests that to begin with, one must establish the differences between much of modern graffiti which ‘blights our bus shelters, underpasses and public toilets.’ Putting to one side street artists such as Banksy, modern graffiti tends to be largely territorial or memorial in nature. A simple ‘I was here’ or ‘this is mine/ours,’ for instance. This is in no way meaningless or invalid, but according to Champion it’s very different to the graffiti found in Britain’s medieval churches.
Recent research would indicate that, while there are numerous inscriptions which might be little more than a choirboy’s doodle, the vast majority of examples appear to be devotional or religious in nature. Champion writes that they are, in their simplest form, ‘prayers made solid in stone.’ In some cases they are exactly that – a Latin prayer etched deeply into the stonework, or a prayer for the safe return of a ship or good harvest, as well as prayers for the soul of a dead loved one. Other examples though are less easy to decipher. ‘Ritual protection marks,’ often known as ‘Witch Marks’ are common, designed to ward off daemons and the ever-present ‘evil eye.’ These are often found clustered around medieval fonts. Also common are elaborate crosses, cut deep into the arches, perhaps to ask for God’s blessing or in memory of vows taken.
The walls of our medieval churches, argues Hope, are full of minute testaments to faith and beliefs that once were commonplace. ‘They tell the story of life, love, hope and fear within the medieval parish; a record that depicts sudden death and the perils of the soul that, every day, were faced by our ancestors.’ Most of all though, she goes on, ‘these scratched mementoes by the long dead tell us about the people.’ A single church might hold any number of secrets. The church of St Mary’s at Troston in Suffolk, for instance, bears an elaborate compass-drawn design on the tower arch which dates back to the building and consecration of the church. While, further up the stonework is simply the name ‘John Abthorp,’ a lord of the manor in the late fifteenth century.
On the south side of the church, below a beautiful coat of arms, a more sinister piece of graffiti can be seen. It takes the form of a medieval shoe, however etched alongside the shoe, and partly obscuring it, is the head of a daemon. Such imagery was common in medieval churches, yet Champion deems the number of examples of daemons in the graffiti of St Mary’s noteworthy. Higher up the arch is a second daemon inscription, this time shown in profile with its gaping mouth full of sharpened teeth and a lolling tongue. Across this daemon’s head is a pentangle, scored deeply into the stonework where it has been gone over numerous times. The pentangle, a symbol of protection, sits in the centre of the daemon’s head- ‘quite literally pinning it to the wall and trapping the evil within,’ says Champion.
Such symbolism clearly carried important meanings for the individuals who created the graffiti, and it is worth noting that many of the more elaborate designs would have taken several hours to complete. This suggests that they could not have been carried out without the knowledge and at least tacit-approval of the local church. While some designs are clearly devotional in nature, we may never truly understand the reason why the lord of the manor left his name inscribed on the tower arch. Hope wonders, was he simply recording his presence, or maybe marking his territory? Was it even John Abthorp who carved his name into the stonework, or was it perhaps created by another person with ‘a deeper, darker purpose?’
Other examples of medieval graffiti are much less enigmatic, and all too easy to understand. At Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire, for instance, a tiny Latin inscription in the north aisle reads simply, ‘Here lies Margaret in her tenth year.’ An equally tragic tale is evident at the church in Kingston, Cambridgeshire, where a small inscription is cut neatly into the stonework. It only lists three names; ‘Cateryn Maddyngley, Jane Maddyngley and Amee Maddyngley.’ ‘Exactly how old they were,’ Hope resigns herself, ‘we may never know,’ but as they do not appear in the parish records, it suggests that all three were children or infants, and all were related by blood. The date following the names offers a further indication as to their fate — ‘1515,’ the year the Bubonic plague returned to London, the south-east, and Cambridgeshire. This outbreak also appears to have been extremely virulent. Cambridge University is known to have suspended all studies, and the courts and places of gathering were disbanded in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. It was, however, to little avail.
Hope writes that ‘part of the problem was that this outbreak came only a short time after the last major outbreak of the Sweating Sickness in 1507.’ Moreover, as was typical of this period, the years immediately after a major epidemic usually saw an increased birth rate, as families and communities tried to recover the losses of the previous pestilence. This meant that, in the case of the 1515 epidemic, when the plague began to spread across England, the country had a far higher population of infants than it might ordinarily – and unfortunately, these children appear to have fallen victim to the disease in their hundreds and thousands. Across the country, so many infants died that they were hastily buried in unmarked graves with little or no time to memorialise or remember them. Hope writes that ‘In London, the hasty funeral processions, made up of only a few souls, walked the deserted streets; and in a small village in rural Cambridgeshire, a stolid tenant farmer quickly etched the names of his three dead children into the walls of his parish church.’
‘The simple inscription may well be the only mark those three young individuals left on this planet,’ writes Hope. ‘Sometimes the writing on the walls can break your heart.’